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Walking the thin line

Has Cardinal Luis Tagle been reading Inquirer columnist Randy David? Seems so, from an interview with Juan Pablo Salud published in Philippine Graphic (Jan. 27).

In the interview, the cardinal speaks of President Aquino as possibly the first “modern president” of the Philippines.  He goes on to describe “modernity” in terms reminiscent of Randy David’s analysis, though the basic insight goes back to Emile Durkheim and far beyond. As the cardinal puts it, “Modernity is characterized by differentiation. You differentiate the different aspects of life from each other. The economic world. The political world. The cultural world. The religious world, etc.”

Here one can imagine a primitive community in which the head of each family is also its religious leader, the whole family engages in working the farm, children are educated within the family, and the heads of neighboring families meet together to mediate disputes and decide on relations with other communities. As the community becomes “modern,” these functions are taken over by different, specialized groups or institutions. Each institution develops its own ways of doing things and its own rules: the stock market, the rules of court, curricula for schools, election law, etc.

The cardinal suggests that P-Noy is the first Philippine president to have fully realized this: He works primarily within the political order, although without cutting himself off from the other institutions. He listens to input from other sectors, including the Church, “[b]ut in the end, as a ‘modern’ man he differentiates his political choice from his personal religious commitment.” And this, the cardinal adds, is something to which he (the cardinal) must get accustomed.

Cardinal Tagle goes on to insist, however, that the President cannot isolate himself within the political structure; he needs input from all sides. The various institutions cannot and should not be airtight boxes. We have seen, here in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, examples of political structures running amuck and for “reasons of state” trampling human rights.

The popes have long insisted that the “laws of the market” are not enough to assure social justice, and we read almost daily of big banks and other powerful corporations enriching themselves at terrible cost to little people, while following the “rules of the game.” Church leaders in many countries, Boy Scouts of America officials, university officials, even the famed BBC, seem to have prioritized the protection of their institutions from “scandal” rather than the protection of youngsters from sexual abuse.

What this is saying is that these institutions cannot be absolutely autonomous, independent. There must somehow be a set of moral principles which link them all to the common good.

And this is not easy. An outstanding example here may be Abraham Lincoln. The recent award-winning film deals only with the last four months of his life. In so doing, it tends to gloss over the tremendous moral tension which characterized his life.

From his youth, Lincoln had believed that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Yet he was elected president under a Constitution that protected slavery in the original slave-holding states. Moreover, as president he had sworn to enforce the law, which included the Fugitive Slave Act requiring that escaped slaves tracked down in the non-slaveholding states be returned to their “owners.”

Caught on the horns of this dilemma, this contradiction between his own moral beliefs and his sworn duty as president, Lincoln long strove to “walk the narrow line between good and evil.” Upon taking office he vowed to uphold the law, including the Fugitive Slave Act; he also worked mightily to prevent the extension of slavery beyond the original slave-holding states, to prevent the resumption of the transatlantic slave trade, and even—later on—to indemnify slave owners who freed their slaves.

Lincoln did everything in his power to prevent the outbreak of war despite the “fire-eating” opponents of slavery in the north and the intransigent planters in the south. When war came despite his best efforts, and ultimately more than 650,000 soldiers’ deaths, the churches were divided (the great Archbishop John Hughes of New York firmly opposed a war to free the slaves); the thoughts of this man with no religious affiliation turned more and more to God. And at the crucial moment when he decided to use constitutionally questionable wartime powers to free the slaves in the rebellious states, he acknowledged privately that this was a “promise” he had made to “my Maker.”

Steven Spielberg’s film tells a later story, when the war has almost ended and with it Lincoln’s wartime powers. He is desperately pushing for a constitutional amendment that would finally abolish slavery throughout the nation. It shows him not only as the august, serene figure carved on the Lincoln Memorial, but also as a shirt-sleeved politician using patronage and arm-twisting to “railroad” the amendment. He succeeds in the end by the narrowest of margins, and shortly after dies by an assassin’s bullet.

Politics, the Church has always held, is a demanding vocation. This is particularly true in what Max Weber called a “polytheistic world” of competing values. It might be good for P-Noy, the politicians among us, and the rest of us, to reflect long and hard on the struggles of Abraham Lincoln.

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